Saudi Arabia is pursuing a two-pronged exit strategy from the war in Yemen. Having failed to secure a military victory on the ground, the kingdom has chosen to talk directly with the Houthis to insulate the border and neighboring waters from attacks. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its activism in Yemen’s South through proxy-like loyalists to counter secessionist and pro-Emirati forces. This marks a strategic change in Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni policy, which had previously prioritized pursuing a countrywide cease-fire and maintaining a unified Yemeni state, mainly by engaging with formal institutions.
The Border: Saudi-Houthi Talks
On September 14, a 10-member Houthi delegation from Sanaa traveled to Riyadh, at Saudi Arabia’s invitation, for the first time since the Iranian-backed movement seized the capital in September 2014. This follows talks in April, when a Saudi delegation met with Houthi officials in Sanaa. Oman’s facilitators joined both diplomatic rounds: Oman hosted Houthi-Saudi discussions in August, and an Omani delegation also visited Houthi officials in Sanaa in September. Among the issues discussed were the possibility of fully reopening Sanaa International Airport and the port of Hodeidah (both still controlled by the Houthis), and the payment of public sector wages in Houthi-controlled areas through oil revenue shares.
Since a United Nations-brokered truce was implemented in April 2022, levels of violence in Yemen have significantly declined, as have Houthi drone and missile attacks on Saudi soil. But since the truce expired in October 2022, Yemen has remained in a fragile limbo. The U.N. has been working to transform the truce into a comprehensive formal cease-fire, however, the Yemeni warring parties have refused to sit together at the negotiation table. The U.N. efforts have run in parallel with Saudi diplomatic efforts.
The Saudis aim, first of all, to secure a bilateral deal with the Houthis to stabilize the border and prevent potential new attacks against the kingdom. A Saudi-Houthi cease-fire could lead to the opening of a broader U.N.-led Yemeni peace process. However, no members of the Presidential Leadership Council or representatives from the U.N.-recognized government have been invited to the Saudi-Houthi talks. This suggests that Saudi Arabia is now approaching conflict resolution in Yemen primarily from a border perspective, thus downsizing its initial goals, which were the military defeat of the Houthis and the reinstatement of the U.N.-recognized government in Sanaa. It also suggests it is not a foregone conclusion that a Saudi-Houthi cease-fire would lead to a broader U.N.-led Yemeni process.
The (Looming) Proxies: Saudi-Backed Groups and Movements in the South
As Saudi Arabia realized it couldn’t alter the balance of power in the Houthi-controlled northwest, its strategic focus has shifted south. The kingdom is revising its strategy in Yemen’s Southern regions to expand Saudi military and political influence, thus challenging the notable leverage the United Arab Emirates has built since 2015 to the detriment of Riyadh. For example, Saudi Arabia has backed and funded the National Shield Forces, which were announced in January under the leadership of Presidential Leadership Council head Rashad al-Alimi, who is close to the Saudis. With an estimated force of 20,000 fighters, the National Shield Forces’ bulk is mainly comprised of Salafi Subaiha tribesmen from Lahj governorate. Alimi formalized the National Shield Forces as a reserve unit under his direct supervision, outside the Ministry of Defense.
The National Shield Forces, originally created in the outskirts of Aden (Lahj and Abyan), were later organized into several brigades in Southern governorates and deployed to Wadi Hadramout, the northern and oil-rich part of the Hadramout governorate bordering Saudi Arabia. Confrontation between Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces is escalating in Aden and Hadramout. Aden is still largely controlled by the UAE-backed Security Belt Forces, which are affiliated with the pro-secession Southern Transitional Council. In August, the Emirati-supported Giants Brigades stormed the presidential palace for a few hours. Further, northern Hadramout, still held by Yemeni government forces and at least notionally supported by Riyadh, has been repeatedly threatened by the STC.
The Saudi-backed Hadramout National Council was established in June after Saudi-sponsored consultations were held in Riyadh gathering Hadrami tribal and military leaders. The council pursues greater autonomy for the governorate but in a national framework, thus presenting a political platform directly opposed to the STC. Moreover, on June 25, Alimi launched 20 development projects funded by the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen in Hadramout, including the renovation of the Al-Wadea border crossing with the kingdom. Alimi pledged to begin a decentralization process in the governorate for Hadramout to “independently manage its finances, administration, and security,” a federal-oriented approach the largely anti-secessionist Saudis find acceptable.
In Southern regions, Saudi Arabia failed to regain power through armed groups and fighters’ reintegration into the formal security sector, partly due to the lack of implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, which was brokered by Saudi Arabia in 2019 between pro-government forces and Emirati-backed pro-secession forces. In addition, despite having exerted significant influence to establish it in April 2022, Saudi Arabia was also unable to capitalize on the role of the Presidential Leadership Council, given its rising fragmentation and the predominance of powerful UAE-backed members. Therefore, now the kingdom seems to no longer be prioritizing formal institutions, opting instead to organize or support pro-Saudi, proxy-like groups and movements in Yemen. The majority of Southern urban centers, coasts, and islands, with the exception of Mahra governorate, are currently controlled by armed groups and political movements directly supported by or close to the Emiratis. Abu Dhabi has succeeded in preserving its network of local allies, from Mokha to Aden and Mukalla, despite the withdrawal of Emirati troops in 2019 and the Riyadh Agreement’s mandate that supervision of all forces fall under the Defense Ministry of the U.N.-recognized government.
Saudi Arabia’s new strategy in Yemen has three major implications. First, it indirectly weakens Yemen’s formal institutions. Even though these are supported by Riyadh, the U.N.-recognized government and Presidential Leadership Council’s exclusion from diplomatic talks with the Houthis as well as the establishment of Saudi-sponsored, proxy-like forces undermine the formal institutions and security sector. Second, bilateral talks with the Houthis provide them with greater political leverage vis-à-vis the U.N.-recognized government, since the Saudis have increasingly acknowledged the Houthis as interlocutors while implicitly but powerfully downsizing such an endorsement for the U.N.-recognized government. Third, the strategy triggers greater competition between Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, as they vie for influence in the Southern regions.
For the first time in decades, rather than dealing with Yemen as its “courtyard,” or as an extension of its internal sphere, Saudi Arabia is addressing Yemen as a foreign policy issue with relevant security implications. This is likely because Riyadh is no longer able to impose the rules of the game, lacking long-established interlocutors among politicians and tribal allies, and so it is opting for compromise and indirect influence, trying to maximize the gains from its military exit from Yemen. While the strategy may buttress Riyadh’s withdrawal from Yemen and succeed in countering pro-Emirati forces in specific areas, it is unlikely to counter broader secessionist tendencies or to arrest the ongoing fracturing of a unified Yemeni state.